Taut Penn, wry Keener shine in "The Interpreter"

Sydney Pollack's "The Interpreter" ticks along like a freshly wound-up clock, smart and precise, keeping its audience just breathless enough not to notice that more than two hours have passed. Except for Sean Penn's performance, there's nothing particularly unexpected about it, but smart thrillers are a rare enough treat these days. And Pollack, now 70, directs with real verve, quite enough to make us forget his tepid recent movies ("Random Hearts," "Sabrina") and to remember the skill and craftsmanship of "Tootsie," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "Out of Africa."

The film, a story about a United Nations interpreter (Nicole Kidman, pale as powder) who overhears a death threat against an African head of state, gets an added level of gravitas from its surroundings: According to the film's press materials, this is the first motion picture to be filmed inside the U.N.'s New York headquarters. (Hitchcock's "North by Northwest," among others, had to film its U.N. scenes on a look-alike set.) The outside shots of the building, a majestic midcentury box, seem oddly serene; the interior scenes crackle with life, with the furnishings looking just out-of-date enough so that you know they're real.

But for all the film's carefully honed atmosphere and polish, it still comes down — as so many movies do — to the problems of the two little people at its center. Because these people are portrayed by Penn and Kidman, "The Interpreter" gets not only a movie-star gloss but a pair of meticulously honest performances.

Penn plays Tobin Keller, a federal agent assigned to investigate the case of Silvia Broome (Kidman). Like the other men Penn's played recently, Keller is a tortured soul, but we don't entirely learn why until late in the film. He's scrupulously polite and professional, but something's dead behind his eyes, and Penn wisely gives the performance little of his usual fireworks. His work here is deliberate and thoughtful, his delivery often very simple (listen to the line, late in the film "The only thing I wanted, besides having her back, was to be left alone") — and the result is devastating. Penn rarely appears in thrillers, but he understands the power of quiet at the core of a swirling plot. It's a marvelous performance, and it elevates the film.

Kidman, surprisingly, is a bit overshadowed by him; her character seems less interesting. The idealistic Silvia is steely but in a predictable way, and her lovely face seems less expressive than usual. She's never less than competent, but Pollack only needs one emotion from her — wary apprehension — and she disappears from the screen for a long stretch in the third act.

This leaves the movie available for stealing, and Catherine Keener, as Penn's partner, neatly snatches it up. With her delivery as dry as a U.N. position paper, she plays the wry sidekick to perfection. (Upon finding a wired bomb in a suspect's apartment, she deadpans, "Well, that's just rude.") It's a small role, but Keener creates a rich character within it, sarcastic and funny yet warmhearted beneath — you see the affectionate bond she has with Keller, though the two would never admit it. Keener's been doing terrific work in indie films for years; it's nice to see her shine in such a high-profile project.

"The Interpreter" touches on some hot-button issues, as its breakneck plot envelopes terrorism, a dangerous dictator, genocide and the role of the U.N., and it's to the credit of Pollack and the screenwriters (Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian) that it all moves along intelligently and swiftly. (Credit editor William Steinkamp, too, for a nail-biting sequence on a bus.) But when I think back on "The Interpreter," it's the quiet control of Penn's performance that remains, a great actor demonstrating that he's still capable of surprising us.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 3 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Interpreter," with Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Catherine Keener, Jesper Christensen, Yvan Attal. Directed by Sydney Pollack, from a screenplay by Charles Randolph, Scott Frank and Steven Zaillian. 135 minutes. Rated PG13 for violence, some sexual content and brief language. Several theaters.